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The “real betis” is a football club from Seville, Spain. Joaquin Sánchez was the captain of this team and he passed away in a car accident. The team will no longer be the same without him.
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Sid Lowe is a writer from Spain.
TALAVERA DE LA REINA is a town in Spain.
“And I’m dressed in No. 17…”
Is that… every single one of them?
There were fireworks everywhere in Talavera, Toledo province, on Thursday night. Banners declaring the local football club “a way of life” hung on the bridges entering the town — population 83,303, primary industry ceramics — and there was life all right, the sensation that only comes when there are fiestas or football, an event like this.
People flowed into crowded streets from the pubs along El Prado, tucked in among the buildings as a pitch should be, the apartments at the top affording a glimpse of the field below. Many weren’t going to get in, with a few aspirants approaching doors and asking questions to which they already knew the answer is “no,” and all 4,200 tickets were sold out, but they still showed there. This has to be seen and experienced. It didn’t matter whether it came from the outside.
That’s what the Copa del Rey is about.
Talavera has never competed in the top level and has also never competed in the second. In Primera RFEF Group I, Spain’s ostensibly amateur third-to-fourth flight, they are one spot above the relegation zone. “Most of this bunch won’t be here” on Sunday against Real Union, one supporter muttered as he walked in, yet El Prado was packed, blue and white scarfs whirling, Father Christmas banging a drum, and songs chanted. This was a chance to play Real Betis, the country’s third-best team, and it was a moment that galvanized everyone.
That means it was also an opportunity to see him. Perhaps this is your final opportunity. This is true not just for them, but for everyone. Joaquin has resisted time for so long, but now the clock is ticking.
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Make no mistake: Talavera came to defeat Betis, to compete, not only to welcome them and then wish them well, to shake Joaquin’s hand and wave him off with a comfortable victory. In a perfect world, they would vanquish him and send him home.
They came close to doing that as well, with the crowd erupting as they led the squad from the first division to extra time. Talavera remained in the game until the 116th minute, when they struck the post and missed at least three clear opportunities, and they were not defeated until two late goals making it 4-2. They may have deserved more, and they definitely deserve more than to be degraded to simply another stage on Joaquin’s farewell tour.
The Copa del Rey is more than that. However, here’s the thing: it was also that.
While they aren’t alone, Talavera put it better than anybody else. On Thursday night, the home players all wore the same jersey when they emerged from the tunnel in the corner. Sure, it was a Talavera jersey, but there was a No. 17 on the back of it — his No. 17. They were named after him.
But, if Joaquin is Betis’ player, he seems to be everyone’s player as well.
Joaquin used to fantasize of being a bullfighter, sneaking down to the neighborhood ring to train by escaping through the window. But it was football that he excelled at, even though he had a little of the theatrical about him, like an old-school winger toying with opponents (cliche warning). In Andalusia, it is always referred to as arte.
After rising through the ranks of Betis’ youth system, he would go on to head a group of youngsters called up to rescue the club after they were relegated to the second division, carrying them back to the top flight in his first season with the senior team. It was the year 2000.
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Yes, that was the year 2000.
Joaquin had made his first-team debut in September 2000, after spending the previous year with Betis’ B club in Segunda B (the same division as Talavera). We’re going to enter the year 2022. No wonder it seems like there’s never been a moment when he wasn’t there, especially because he’s such a prominent person; no surprise it feels like a piece of ourselves will be lost when he’s gone.
Joaquin once claimed that he was so powerful because he was nursed until he was six years old, so maybe he was always destined to keep going a bit longer than typical. “The other kids would go to the water fountain, and I would run to my mother’s breast,” he said of games played on the plaza in El Puerto de Santa Maria, where he grew up.
Well, it’s only a hypothesis.
It spoke a lot about him that he recounted the anecdote while chuckling and speaking with the dialect of Cadiz province, home of carnival and a location where being humorous appears to come naturally. He’s always been a little unusual, a cheeky monkey with a naughty sparkle in his eye, as happy cracking jokes or dancing about as he is scoring goals or beating defenders. This is the guy who hypnotized a hen on national television, threatened teammates with a fee if they didn’t go out till 5 a.m. after winning the derby, and would spend his post-playing days presenting.
That made him famous, but it didn’t turn him into a player. Or maybe it did; there’s something to be said about the significance of having fun, which is what football is all about. Silly does not always imply a lack of seriousness when it comes to sports. While Joaquin has the power that comes with being a local hero, one coach claims that as he’s gotten older, some concessions have been made to him — he’s the one who plays as a wildcard in possession drills, letting him to run less and have more of the ball.
His positive attitude benefits the team and makes everyone happy. He improves their working conditions.
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So far, Joaquin has started all six Europa League games as well as both Copa del Rey encounters. If this is a farewell tour, these are the venues where it will be performed and where homages will be paid. It’s an opportunity for those Spanish fans who believed they’d never have it, who thought he’d never come to their town, in the case of the little teams in the cup. So far, he’s faced two teams he hasn’t met in almost two decades of playing. This tie in Talavera was even foreshadowed by a Sevilla-based publication as a chance to pay honor to him rather than go to so much trouble.
Even if that wasn’t the full truth — remember, Talavera and Betis both wanted to win — it was part of it.
So there he was in Alicante, facing Regional Preferente, a team at the bottom of the footballing pyramid, and receiving a standing ovation as he walked off. So there he was, Betis’ 40-year-old captain, being applauded by his opponents’ supporters when the squads were read out before the game a week later. He was standing there watching Talavera’s players emerge from the tunnel, each player wearing his name and number on a commemorative jersey with both teams’ insignia embroidered on the chest. Before they began, Talavera captain Juan Gongora gave out one of them, another compliment to a player who has become used to them.
After defeating Alicante, Joaquin remarked, “I will never weary of expressing that this is a true privilege for me.” “Those standing ovations are the nicest souvenir I can bring home.” I’d want to express my gratitude for their kindness.
“People may assume that at this point in my career, these kind of games don’t important to me, but I continue to play with a particular fervor, with the desire to feel like a footballer again. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody, but this is an opportunity for me to show what I’m capable of and to demonstrate that I’m competitive.”
For all the laughter, it’s a remark that serves to define him — one that explains how he’s survived so long. He has no idea how he got to Thursday night. It’s also something that Talavera made plain. Rodri, who was four months old at the time of Joaquin’s debut, was playing to his left. Diego Lainez, his replacement, was three months old. During the first half, Joaquin was bundled over from behind and left in a heap on the floor. The referee, Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez, who is likewise younger than him, assisted him to his feet. He staggered for a few moments after the foul, and Pellegrini subsequently revealed that he had a cut on his Achilles, but he didn’t stop.
For years, he’s been attempting to avoid stopping. He really shined. He was perhaps Betis’ finest player for as long as he was on the field, playing off the right, left, and center. The motion improved with each passing of the ball to him. Every choice was correct, and every touch was flawless. And it was from the penalty spot that he scored the goal that gave Betis the lead, which they would lose without him. They weren’t the same without him, and football won’t be either, despite the fact that the match was still a slugfest with Talavera smashing into Betis. Everyone appears to be aware of this now.
That’s why, with 67 minutes left on the biggest night they’d had in years, El Prado did what everyone else is doing these days and stood to applaud the grand old man from the field one last time, despite the fact that Joaquin had scored the goal that looked set to deny them the victory they craved more than anything else.
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